The Queen on the Application of Bernard v. London Borough of Enfield,  EWHC 2282 (Admin)
Decision regarding a claim brought under the Human Rights Act of 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights by a woman with disabilities and her husband regarding the lack of suitable housing provided to them by their local government. The case covered a range of issues, including the right to housing, respect for private and family life, disability rights, and the availability of monetary damages for violations of the Human Rights Act and Convention on Human Rights.
This case concerns a claim for damages by a woman with severe disabilities, Mrs. Bernard and her husband, Mr. Bernard, her sole caregiver, alleging that the local Housing Department did not provide them with accommodations suitably adapted for her disability. This failure, it was contended, constituted a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Damages were sought under the Human Rights Act (HRA), which is the implementing legislation for the ECHR in the UK.
Mrs. Bernard is confined to a wheelchair most of the time. However, the Department had accommodated the claimants in a home that was not wheelchair accessible. This required that Mr. Bernard be present in the home for the majority of the time, because he had to lift his wife for all transfers from the chair, including using the restroom and bathing. Many additional consequences followed, including adverse effects on their children’s lives and on their ability to enjoy a typical private family life. The claimants made many requests to the Housing Department for appropriate housing, which were largely ignored or delayed. Furthermore, the Social Services Department filed a detailed report with the Housing Department detailing the ways in which their current home was unsuited to their needs. This report, too, went largely unaddressed.
The Court found that the Housing Department was in violation of Article 8 of the ECHR, which requires that governments respect the private and family lives of persons. The decision stated that Article 8 may require that positive steps be taken to ensure that such respect is provided, particularly when a case concerns particularly vulnerable groups like persons with disabilities. Here, such positive steps would include the provision of suitably adapted accommodation to enable the claimants and their children to lead as normal a family life as possible. The Court held that the Department’s inaction displayed a singular lack of respect for the private and family life of the claimants. Appropriate accommodation would have “…restored her dignity as a human being”. Despite the fact that the family had been placed in suitable housing at the time of this litigation, the Court considered that damages were justified in this case because it was the only way to afford just satisfaction to the claimants.
A record damages award of ₤10,000 under the Human Rights Act 1998 was made in this case.
The overall impact of this judgment as a precedent has been limited: subsequent court decisions have treated the decision as based very much on the specific facts of the case. According to a 2014 assessment, this is apparently the only reported case where this type of claim has succeeded. (Merris Amos, Arguing for social rights using a civil and political rights framework: the case of the United Kingdom, IACL World Congress, 2014) However, it is nevertheless an important decision, as it establishes that the HRA can be used to protect socio-economic entitlements in appropriate circumstances. In particular, it opens the possibility that the right to privacy and home and family life as set out in Article 8 of the HRA ECHR will impose positive obligations on public authorities in certain circumstances to take action to ensure that the housing provided to vulnerable persons meets basic standards of decency and habitability. Moreover, it illustrates the court’s willingness to enforce the duty of public authorities to act in compliance with the HRA.